Chichester Festival Theatre and touring
Opened 4 February, 2011

New venture the Children’s Touring Partnership has astutely chosen as its opening production an adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s million-plus-selling novel about an abused London boy evacuated at the beginning of World War Two and billeted with a Dorset widower who has socialisation issues of his own. Magorian’s story has resonated with readers for 30 years, and adapter David Wood was always guaranteed to catch the poignancy but focus principally on the affirmative aspects. Angus Jackson’s fluent, appealing production (which I saw at Chichester) is led by Oliver Ford Davies, who is a natural as the rumbling but immensely good-hearted Mister Tom. And yet, although I have not read the book, I cannot but feel that translating it to the stage has unintentionally emphasised its flimsier aspects.
The story contains much grit: young William’s mother is a shrieking wreck who thinks the Bible belt is what she uses to thrash scripture into her son, and he suffers much both physically and psychologically at her hands. But matters seem a little too black and white: in Robert Innes Hopkins’ design, the main playing area is raised to reveal the family’s London hovel, suggesting that his life there is literally chthonian. The rural life, by contrast, is the kind of idyll that former Prime Minister John Major once rhapsodised about, with its community spirit, amateur dramatics, local kids who need only a single mild telling-off to stop persecuting the evacuees and become fast friends with them and so on. Magorian is careful to show the wartime suffering, with fatalities taking their toll even on the village’s own population, but in this swift staging they seem improbably easily borne. Even when William’s best friend, precocious fellow evacuee Zach, is killed by a bomb on a return trip to London, events are compressed so that it apparently takes little more than donning Zach’s stripy jumper in order to weather the loss.
The events portrayed are from an era at least a generation before even the earliest readers of the book, and which has entered our collective mythology: to the perennial Edenic archetype of village life is added the Blitz spirit, in both London and rural variants. We can quickly discount the bruises of William’s and others’ wartime experiences because they are transient marks on an idealised, fictitious body of narrative.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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